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The five defendants (seen here in a courtroom in April) were arrested in October 2016 after Russia-controlled authorities in Ukraine's Crimea searched their homes.

ROSTOV-ON-DON, Russia -- A court in Russia has sentenced five Crimean Tatars to lengthy prison terms on extremism charges that they say are politically motivated.

The North Caucasus Regional Military court in the city of Rostov-on-Don on June 18 found the five men guilty of organizing and/or participating in the activities of the Hizb ut-Tahrir Islamic group that is banned in Russia but legal in Ukraine.

Teymur Abdullayev was sentenced to 17 years, Rustem Ismaiylov received 14 years, and Uzeiyr Abdullayev 13 years, while Ayder Saledinov and Emil Dzhemadenov were sentenced to 12 years in prison each.

The men were arrested in October 2016 after Russia-controlled authorities in Ukraine's Crimea searched their homes.

Two months later, they were transferred to a detention center in the Russian city of Rostov-on Don.

Last week, eight other Crimean Tatars were arrested in Crimea and charged with belonging to Hizb ut-Tahrir.

Since Russia seized the peninsula in 2014, Russian authorities have prosecuted dozens of Crimean Tatars for allegedly belonging to Hizb ut-Tahrir.

Earlier, in March-April, Russia's Federal Security Service detained 24 Crimean Tatars, also on suspicion of being members of the group, following house-to-house searches in Crimea.

Rights groups and Western governments have denounced what they describe as a campaign of repression by the Russian-imposed authorities in Crimea who are targeting members of the Turkic-speaking Crimean Tatar community and others who have spoken out against Moscow's takeover of the peninsula.

In its annual report on religious freedom worldwide, released on April 29, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) said that "[in] Russian-occupied Crimea, the Russian authorities continued to kidnap, torture, and imprison Crimean Tatar Muslims at will."

Russia took control of Crimea from Ukraine in March 2014 after sending in troops, seizing key facilities, and staging a referendum dismissed as illegal by at least 100 countries. Moscow also backs separatists in a war against government forces that has killed some 13,000 people in eastern Ukraine since April 2014.

Leonid Volkov (file photo)

A close aide of Russian opposition figure Aleksei Navalny was released from a Moscow jail on June 18, a day after a Moscow court cut by half the 15-day jail term handed down against him.

The early release of Leonid Volkov, who was arrested last week for organizing a demonstration against an increase in the retirement age, is the latest in a series of apparent concessions by the state to appease disgruntled segments of Russia's population.

The Moscow City Court did not give a reason for reducing Volkov’s jail term.

Volkov was sentenced to 15 days in prison on June 10 just hours after he completed a 20-day jail term for live-streaming an unsanctioned Moscow rally in September 2018.

The 38-year old is a project manager at Navalny's Anti-Corruption Foundation, which investigates alleged corruption among government officials and those close to President Vladimir Putin.

A court in Chechnya last week granted an early release to rights activist Oyub Titiyev, who was sentenced to four years in prison in March on drug charges he denies.

A day later, Moscow authorities closed the case against journalist Ivan Golunov, who was under house arrest on drug charges, following widespread protests.

A St. Petersburg court on June 17 downgraded extortion charges against Kaliningrad newspaper editor Ivan Rudnikov, allowing him to be released on June 17.

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